Picture Perfect

After church yesterday, a small miracle occurred:  I got a good family photo. I mean, everybody was looking at the camera, everybody was smiling, everybody was wearing pants…this almost never happens. I have two small squirmy kids; a husband who is 17 inches (seriously) taller than me, so it is awkward getting us to fit in the same frame; and one or more of us is usually a hot mess in the clothing, hair and/or cleanliness department. Last year, we sent out a card with a pic of our son–wait for it–picking his nose. Cause it was real, and it was funny, and we didn’t want to endure an hour-long photo session just for a better shot.  This year I was determined that, in the midst of all our moving and transition chaos, I was going to get me a good Christmas card picture, dadgummit.

Amazingly, the shot was taken by a friend, using my camera phone, and he only took 3 shots. I’ve sat through sessions with professional photographers that did not yield a single ‘keeper,’ and this one took 30 seconds. Like I said—miracle.

I spent some time yesterday afternoon perusing photo card options online.  And I don’t know if you have shopped for holiday cards lately, but let me tell you: for a minimalist, the choices are overwhelming. As I scrolled through literally hundreds of design templates, I was looking for simplicity of design and message, neutral appeal of color palate, and a photo placement that would work with my ONE decent family snapshot. That’s all I wanted. But once I found a design in all that mess, there came a whole new set of frustrations: issues with pixel resolution, coupon codes that only work within very specific parameters, font placement that will fit all your names on the same line…glossy finish, or matte? Plain envelope or printed? Would you like those sent to your house, or shall we mail them for you?

After an hour of this, I wanted to scream…It’s a piece of paper, people! This is not brain surgery! This is not an epistle that will re-shape the world order! This is not even a church newsletter! Goodness. Who are we trying to impress?

For me, the Christmas greeting is about staying connected with family and friends who live far away from us—and who have always lived far from my kids. The card says without saying, We really miss you, and it would be great if you lived right next door and we grill out together every single weekend, but this is the world we live in so…here’s a picture. And we’re all wearing pants. Merry Christmas.

But is it really that simple?  In the recesses of our minds, aren’t we programmed to try for that perfect moment, that perfect image, that perfect family story? Isn’t that what we want to share with our friends?

Maybe…but it’s less about them and more about us. It isn’t that we want to impress other people; it’s that we want to capture all that ‘perfect’ for ourselves, a comfort against our many insecurities.

And perfect is such a dangerous word.

Here’s what I know to be true. When shopping for a card, the options are overwhelming. And yet… the models in these prototype cards  all look the same. Happy, matching outfits, matching skin color, straight white teeth…


So let me get this straight. I have to choose from about 4000 design options, and then make a dozen more decisions about everything from the paper weight to the envelope color…but you can’t show us a single deviation from the standard, in-the-box, traditional family?

No same-sex couples. No interracial couples or multi-ethnic families. No single parents. AND, in every single picture, everybody’s wearing pants.

I call B.S.

If your life doesn’t match the scenery during the holidays—or if everybody in your household doesn’t ‘match’ each other—then fear not: I bring you good tidings of great joy…Even the perfect Christmas card family isn’t perfect. They just, this one time, managed to get a great picture.

Someday, retailers will get the memo that marketing ‘normal’ is a farce.  Someday, we will stop buying the lie that says ‘family equals x,y,z, and if your life doesn’t fit in this text box, you’re broken.” And really, Isn’t this what Advent is for? We tell the story of what IS…in the hopes that Jesus will enter the world, and meet us where we are, and somehow, transform us in ways we can’t even imagine. What’s normal about that?

Don’t get me wrong…my Christmas card this year is going to feature my great family picture. Because, seriously, my last card had a picture of my kid, picking his nose. This might be my one shot at the Hallmark moment. But for every other moment of the season when I feel a little less than perfect; when the pressure of moving and preaching and leading a church and parenting small children and trying to be a good wife/sister/daughter/aunt/friend, and just a decent human being, has me realizing what a hot mess I really truly am, I will comfort myself with this image:

 Mary, designing her Christmas card. Wait, scratch that…it’s a birth announcement. The picture shows a newborn baby—who is NOT the Nordic blonde angel of Victorian hymns and artwork; he’s being held by a guy who’s not his real dad; next to an exhausted looking mother who’s just given birth WITHOUT the epidural. She’s tempted to photo-shop herself out of the picture, or at least do something about her hair… Meanwhile, they’ve been photo bombed by some neighbors who dropped by, unannounced, in the middle of the night. Those guys brought sheep. Who are also in the picture.

Since they were travelling when the baby was born, the child isn’t dressed in the going-home outfit she’d planned; he is swaddled, with only his tiny head sticking out. Mary writes a short message:  ‘don’t mind the mess, we aren’t done with the nursery yet. And you’ll have to excuse all the hay on the floor, we’re going with a barn theme (ha ha).’

She pauses then. What else can she say? ‘We are on the run from Herod, and we are terrified. None of this makes any sense. Joseph is still being weird sometimes. What does any of this mean? And, oh my goodness, will we ever sleep again???’

But no…best to keep it simple. Real, and simple. “We named him ‘Emmanuel,’” she writes. “God with us.”

And God is. All the dang time.

Perfect photo finish or not.

Yep. Those are my menfolk.



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About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...

  • Sandra Orrick

    I have sought the perfect Christmas for 71 years, only to be frustrated and frazzled. Even so, in the midst of the chaos and in spite of everything God is with us, bringing comfort and joy and hope. Every year. Light shines in the darkness. Fear not.